A few years ago I was flying back from a conference on the West Coast – the last leg between Charlotte and Raleigh – and I had my Bible out on my tray reading. Just so you know, although that sounds really spiritual, I was behind on my Bible reading schedule and I was cramming to catch up.
A young woman sat next to me who was raised in the Episcopal Church and her husband in the Catholic Church mentioned to me that she was religious as well. She told me she had been raised in the Episcopal Church and her husband had been raised in the Catholic Church. So they had both Protestant and Catholic roots – they had their bases covered.
I had a chance to do something I absolutely love to do – to show her that her church and my church and church in general cannot save anybody.
I told her, “Listen, the church wants to throw a little water on your problem . . . maybe an extra church service or some ceremony and a few candles and the promise to keep your nose clean; but the our problem is much deeper than a ceremonial solution . . . we’re broken and sinful.”
I turned and began to show her several verses in Romans chapter 1 about the sovereignty of God and the sinfulness of mankind who will stand before God without any excuse; then on to Romans chapter 2 about our conscience informing us that we’re sinful.
She would often exclaim, “I’ve never seen that before; my church never told me any of this stuff before.
Then the plane touched down . . . I wasn’t anywhere near finished . . . I’d only made it to Romans chapter 3.
I told her how to contact me if she was serious about the gospel and wanted to know more . . . I hope she will.
I could tell that she was struck with the realization that religion in general merely creates a system of works so that you can check off the boxes and hopefully do a good enough job to get into heaven by your own efforts.
That would be like Humpty Dumpty getting out a big bottle of super glue and saying, “I think I can fix my broken life.”
Uh, uh, the gospel means you and I are terminally hopeless.
That’s why we have to be saved . . . we’re drowning and we can’t swim to shore – we must be rescued.
There probably wasn’t any condition more desperate in the ancient world that leprosy.
For the Israelite, it spelled judgment and discipline; according to Levitical law, the leper lived outside the camp and essentially lost all contact with his family, loved ones and nation.
For centuries, this particular disease baffled the medical community. It had an unknown origin, a painfully destructive process and it brought on a slow death.
E.G. Masterman wrote, “No other disease reduced a human being for so many years to so hideous a wreck.”
One author wrote, Leprosy might begin with the loss of sensation to some art of the body; the nerves would be affected; then the muscles would begin to waste away; sometimes the tendons contracted until the hands bent inward like claws; every leper would experience the ulcerations on their hands and feet. The ulcers would develop a foul discharge; the eyebrows would fall out and the vocal chords became ulcerated with the voice becoming hoarse and the breathing strained. Extremities like ears and noses and fingers and toes would become infected and diseased and often simply fall off. The duration could last 20-30 years. It was the kind of death in which a person died by inches. But death was certain.
Even in the medieval period – the Middle Ages, if a man became a leper, the priest brought the man to church and read his burial service over him – because for all intents and purposes, he was a dead man. William Barclay, Matthew: Volume 1 (Westminster Press, 1975, p. 296
During the days of Jesus, no one feared any disease like they feared leprosy. No one came closer to a leper than 2 feet – if that; even food purchased on a street traveled by a leper would be thrown away.
By the time Jesus began his ministry, rabbis would throw stones at lepers to keep them at a distance; one historian remarked that rabbis were known to take to their heels at the sight of an approaching leper. Ibid
People who took pity on them would leave food for them at select places. But whenever anyone approached lepers, the leper was to shout out the word, “Unclean . . . Unclean.”
Leprosy became – perhaps more than any other disease, over the centuries – the perfect illustration of the corruption and the corrupting nature of sin; the inability for man to heal himself and desperate need for the healing power of salvation.
There is no surprise then, that when Jesus Christ came to seek and to save sinners, He demonstrated the power to heal – and not just anybody – but the shocking sovereign display of power to cure the incurable leper.
In fact, when John the Baptist was in prison, besieged by doubts about the Lord, he sent a message to Jesus – Are you the expected one [after all] or are we to look for another Messiah?
And Jesus sent him an answer back with the disciples that basically said, “Let me remind you that lepers are being cleansed?” (Matthew 11:5)
His power to cleanse away what had become the terminal illustration of terminal sin marked Him as the true Messiah.
As we prepare for remembering the Lord’s death and our own rescue from sin and judgment, let me briefly show you one incident recorded for us in the Gospel by Mark and chapter 1; this is the first recorded Jew being cleansed of leprosy.
And a leper came to Jesus, beseeching Him and falling on his knees before Him . . .
The Gospel of Luke included this same event, but Luke – more than likely because he was a doctor, added a medical footnote to his account that this leper was covered, literally, he was filled with – leprosy. (Luke 5:12)
This is the same word used by Luke a chapter earlier to describe that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit when he went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
This leper was full of leprosy – he was under the full and devastating effects of this disease.
After 20 to 30 years of living with this debilitating He probably didn’t have much time left. So sick was he; so eaten up with this dreaded disease.
There’s an unwritten volume about this man’s life – but it’s not hard to imagine.
It had been 20-30 years since he’d held his children, or slept in his bed at home; he had watched his family only at a distance – and how it must have broken his heart.
Sin, like leprosy, always robs us – always destroys us – always takes us in our corruption toward hopelessness and loneliness and isolation and despair.
This is a moment – this is an act of desperation for him here.
And a leper came to Jesus, beseeching Him and falling on his knees before Him
We’re not told, but I don’t have any idea how he got this close to Jesus.
Maybe people saw him coming and they scattered or made plenty of room; evidently Jesus wasn’t like the other rabbi’s because he wasn’t throwing stones to keep him away; and Jesus isn’t running . . . afraid of being defiled by sinners.
Jesus isn’t afraid of sinners, Luke writes, He came to seek and to save sinners (Luke 19:10).
This is one of those signature moments when a terminal sinner encounters the true Savior.
Mark goes on in this text that the leper falls to his knees and begs the Lord – with these words –
. . . If You are willing, You can make me clean.
The tense of this verb informs us that he repeated this request over and over again – there he kneels, terminal, hopeless, diseased, incurable . . . this is his only hope – If You are willing, You can make me clean . . . if You are willing, You can make me clean . . . if You are willing You can make me clean.
Did you notice, he doesn’t say, “If you’re willing you can heal me . . . you can take away my leprosy.”
No . . . if you are willing, You can make me clean.
He’s asking for complete, ceremonial, spiritual restoration; he’s going to the deeper issue of all that he wants and longs for – You can make me clean!
The word Luke uses in his account for this man’s kneeling prostration before the Lord was the phrase most commonly used when people knelt and worshipped their gods.
He’s kneeling here, effectively worshipping the anointed Messiah.
And what you have here coming from his lips is an incredible statement of faith.
And what a risk, by the way. If Jesus isn’t the Messiah, this man will be stoned to death for entering a walled city; for violating the laws of excommunication; for putting other people at risk of defilement . . . if Jesus isn’t the Savior, this man doesn’t have a prayer . . . he doesn’t stand a chance for cleansing.
Listen, if Jesus isn’t the Savior – you and I don’t have a prayer either . . . we don’t stand a chance for cleansing.
Terminal . . . incurable . . . without a Savior . . . as Paul wrote, we are, without the legitimacy of Jesus, of all people most miserable (1 Corinthians 15:19).
So can Jesus pull off what no one else on the planet can – is He the sovereign savior this man has risked everything to worship?
I love Jesus’ immediate response, in verse 41.
Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him.
Don’t move too fast here . . . Jesus could have simply said the words . . . but no . . . and this is perhaps the first time in 25 years this man has been touched in kindness by another.
The word for touch is more than a finger . . . this was his hand upon this man’s shoulder.
Jesus didn’t have to touch him to heal him. He could have simply spoken the words, “Be healed.”
With compassion and grace, he put his hand on that mans’ shoulder and said the most precious words that man had ever heard,
Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I am wiling; be cleansed.”
I am willing . . . be cleansed.
Have you come to Jesus and asked the same of Him?
You’ve had enough of religion and ceremony and candles and prayers and good deeds and trying your best to keep your leprosy of sin from spreading . . . but you can’t hide it any longer.
Bring it to Jesus. Pray this wonderful sinners prayer, prayed by a leper 2,000 years ago . . . Lord Jesus – I bow in believing you are who you say you are . . . I have nothing to offer you but corruption and corrosive, terminal sin. But if you are willing – cleanse me too.
And whosoever will, may come . . . he came! Have you?
There are two deceptions that will keep you from coming to the Savior . . . one is that you are not really a sinner . . . you’re not that bad . . . there’s nothing wrong. My friend, if you do not realize how badly you need saving, you will never come and kneel and find in Jesus your Savior.
The first deception is that you’re not that much of a sinner. The second deception is that you’re too much of a sinner – you’re too far gone – you’re beyond help. The disease of sin has spread too far.
Take it from a man who’s family had probably stopped praying for him a long time ago; the synagogue had forgotten him; the rabbi’s didn’t want him; his friends and family had stopped holding out hope a long time ago . . . he and everyone he knew had come to the conclusion that he was beyond help.
But here he comes!
Here is hopelessness coming face to face with holiness; here is depraved pollution being touched by divine purity.
And whenever a sinner bows at the feet of Jesus . . . terminal sinners are cleansed by their triumphant Savior.
Every time . . . in every case . . . guaranteed.